There may be no idea more contemporary than a demented character using the internet in the reckless pursuit of fame. Writer-director Rob Mockler’s debut, “Like Me,” distills that motif to a ferocious young woman so compelled to create online sensations that they drive her insane. It’s an obvious conceit and doesn’t offer new insights, but Mockler transforms the material into a solid thriller with an edgy vision of millennial lunacy, sketching out a psychopath unique to the viral video age.
That would be Kiya (Addison Timlin), a mysterious prankster first seen recording a convenience store clerk late at night as she puts a gun to his head and he begs for his life. The video instantly takes off, generating heated debates across the web and Mockler’s stylish montage captures the overlapping conversations with a knack for featuring the disorienting chaos of modern discourse.
Meanwhile, Kiya watches the mayhem and plots her next move. With no precise backstory, she’s a symbol of youth rebellion — decked out in torn jeans and dark jackets with shadowy black hair atop a piercing gaze, she’s Lisbeth Salander with a YouTube fetish.
“Like Me” falls in line with contemporary tech-thrillers like “King Kelly” and “Nerve,” in which young people exploit digital tools to fixate on the dangerous extremes of exhibitionism. Kiya’s a fascinating entry in part because she has no purpose other than her relentless quest to capture bizarre events and share them with the world. Taking a homeless man to a diner, she toys with her food to a grotesque degree, and it’s unclear what will happen next.
While her peculiar behavior is a reasonable embodiment of a mind reared on random online antics, “Like Me” initially seems like a high concept in search of a movie. Kiya’s intriguing but not particularly substantial. We learn nothing about what compelled her to these extremes, only that they’ve already consumed her. Timlin has a certain uneasiness during these early scenes, even as Mockler’s screenplay is hobbled by overstating the bigger picture. In the aftermath of her first video, Kiva finds herself in the crosshairs of an internet critic whose heavy-handed vitriol takes the material in a blunt direction.
Fortunately, he’s not the focus. “Like Me” settles into an off-kilter kidnapping saga when Kiya comes across paint-huffing artist Marshall (horror maven Larry Fessenden, in the latest role that finds him suffering for the camera) and forces him to guzzle down unthinkably disgusting layers of junk food while tied to a bed. Then they hit the road and things get really weird. Bullets fly, a rat escapes, and drug-fueled binges lead to some next-level hallucinations as “Like Me” goes down the rabbit hole of mental instability with unfettered energy.
Mockler’s imagery is a bit all over the place, but his reference points are clear. Equal parts “Spring Breakers” and “Requiem for a Dream,” the neon-soaked palette could exist in the same unhinged universes. At times the imagery suggests an eagerness to funnel existing avant-garde traditions into a fresh narrative context. At one point, Kiya playfully attempts to seduce Marshall by dangling from the ceiling in a hammock, her face obscured, like some anthropomorphized version of the human reproductive system out of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle; later, she sits outside by the fire next to a stack of television monitors broadcasting static that resemble the deconstructive media installation art of Nam June Paik.
All of these bits unfold alongside the same discordant editing style, which includes rapid-fire cutaways to animation, closeups of chewing mouths, and other visual non sequiturs that endow the film with punk-rock attitude, contextualizing online fame seekers as the ultimate outlaws. The self-serious atmosphere gets a bit tedious, but not before an expertly realized moment of suspense — one that’s built around the construction of a tourniquet and a psychedelic vision involving horse tranquilizers.
Ultimately, “Like Me” delivers a wonderfully twisted antihero only possible in the 21st century, but falls short of giving her much to do. However, the story arrives at a grim finale as two characters keen on murdering each other crack up. It’s hard to tell whether they mean it — but that’s the tantalizing focus of “Like Me,” which drives home the notion that there’s a fine line between a mean-spirited joke and something far more hideous.
“Like Me” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.